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writing subtext

W h at L i e s B e n e at h

Dr. Linda Seger
vii

Contents

aCKnoWLeDgments ix

Chapter one 1
subtext: a definition and exploration
Chapter tWo 35
expressing subtext through words:
character information and backstory
Chapter three 55
techniques for expressing
subtext through words
Chapter four 83
expressing subtext
through gestures and action
Chapter five 105
creating subtext through
images and metaphors
Chapter six 129
expressing subtext through the genre
Chapter seven 147
writer alvin sargent ruminates
about subtext
Chapter eight 151
afterword
fiLmography 153

aBout the author 163
35

Chapter tWo

expressing subtext through
words: character information
and backstory
Words imply. Words suggest. Words point to meaning. Some
words work better than others. To reveal the subtext, words
aren’t arbitrary, but are often written and rewritten and re-
written some more to make sure the subtext comes through in
spite of the text. Great writers know their job – to find the right
word, the best word, and to let the subtext shine beneath the
words.
How do you find the right word? How do you figure out what
subtext is, and where do you put it? You can begin by thinking
about the various elements that make up character and construct
a character biography that suggests possibilities for subtext.

What’s the CharaCter’s Bio?

There are two views on writing, or thinking about, a character
bio. Some writers find it very helpful to list information about
their character, much as you would if you were writing a resume
or a biography of yourself for a job. They think about all aspects
of the character’s backstory and of the present and past life –
writing subtext | seger

36 who they are, what they like, what kind of parents they have, how
many children in the family, what grades they got in school, and
so forth.
Other writers don’t find this exercise helpful. In much the same
way that a resume can be dry and overly factual without giving a
feeling for the personality of the person, this exercise, accord-
ing to some writers, doesn’t do much to bring the character
alive. However, even these writers often find thinking through
a part of the character’s background is helpful, especially if it
relates directly to some aspect of the story.
If you’re going to create subtext, you need to know some facts
about your character. Whether you create these facts consciously,
or whether you intuit them, they still need to inform your writ-
ing in order to create a great character.
Characters talk and act in the present, implying a background
filled with experiences – both negative and positive – about their
childhood and adulthood. In most cases, the audience doesn’t
need to know all about the characters’ education or what they
did when they were three or seven, how many siblings they have
and all about the house where they grew up, who they played
with and how they did in school. Some of this information may
be important, or at least can add layers to the character, but
sometimes, writers put far too much of this information into
the text, when it only belongs in the subtext.
The subtext can often be found in what the character doesn’t
put on his or her resume. Most job applicants aren’t willing to
tell the employer they were fired a number of times, or went
bankrupt, or were once arrested for embezzlement. They don’t
want the employer to know about their unhappy childhood and
that they are currently in therapy, or on medication, which
might affect their job. They want to conceal that they’re habitu-
ally late, and tend to over-eat when nervous. They don’t want
to let others know they tend to take reams of paper home from
expressing subtext through words: character information and backstory

the office supply closet (along with a stapler and some printer 37
cartridges), and that they have three cats, two more than their
apartment allows. (Two are put in the closet when the landlady
comes).
The character is applying for a job in your script. His job
description will include the bad and the good, the flaws and
the talents, the insecurities and where he feels competent and
confident. Therefore, the character has to convey information
to the writer, and to the audience, to prove he is a good
applicant for the job. Some of the information about your char-
acter that comes from your creative unconscious may surprise
you, just as you might be surprised about what you mention and
what you remember as you make out your own resume.

Where else do we find subtext?

In creating this biography, add another piece of information
that you would rarely put on a resume – the character’s
attitude about the information. With attitude, emotions, con-
flicts, personality, and even dynamic relationships with other
characters begin to take shape. Attitude suggests subtext, and
will begin to create the rich underpinnings of the character.
For every fact, you might also think of the character’s response
to this information.
The Character’s Age: Most resumes used begin by stating age.
Although requesting this fact is illegal now, most of your scripts
will have some mention of the character’s age, especially for
major characters. Unfortunately, many writers use the same
cliché for their main characters: She’s described as “late 20s
or early 30s, pretty and sexy.” He’s usually described as “mid
to late 30s, ruggedly handsome.” Many times writers simply say
“attractive,” which tells us very little except what almost every
major character will be, with only a few exceptions. Sometimes,
by the time a producer reads it for the 300th time, this
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38 descriptor becomes tiresome and not very imaginative. And,
it doesn’t make an actor want to play the role. There’s nothing
actable in this description; it only depends on whether the
actors look their age or not, and whether there’s good make-
up, lighting, and a costume person who can make them as
attractive as possible.
But the approximate age is important, after all, the producer
and director have to figure out who to cast.
You begin inserting subtext into the description and dialogue
by thinking about how your characters feel about their age. In
Fatal Attraction (1987, by James Deardon) the description at the
beginning of the script tells us a world of information about
Alex, and sets up the motivation for the desperate actions that
follow. Although the audience won’t see the description, the
producer, actor, director, costumer, make-up person will see it
– and it will inform the physical presentation of the character.
Deardon writes: “She must be in her thirties, but she dresses
younger, trendily, and gets away with it.”
What does this tell us about Alex? She’s not happy about her
age. She wants to be younger. As the story evolves, Alex is clearly
getting desperate – she wants to fall in love, have a child, and
probably wants to get married. She is driven by this desperation,
although she’s much too professional to show it. In her initial
meeting with Dan, and probably with men in general, she tries
to portray herself as a “with it” professional – attractive, willing,
wild, fun, and exciting. But it only takes one night with Alex for
Dan, and the audience, to realize how dangerous she is. With
just this much information, Glenn Close could have begun to
think through the dimensions and layers she would bring to the
role. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her stun-
ning performance of a very well-developed character.
expressing subtext through words: character information and backstory

Skills and Talents and Abilities 39

Most of the time, when a character possesses special abilities,
we see it in the text and it plays out in the story. If someone
is a boxer, or practices martial arts, or plays the piano, or is a
skilled mountain climber, this quality will be shown in the film
and pay off later in the story as we see the skill leading the char-
acter to compete in a music contest or fight in a championship
match.
Their skills might also pay off later in the way they approach a
problem. A pianist might tinker on the piano while trying to
find a way to let his girlfriend know he doesn’t want to see her
anymore. A mountain climber might be the first person to run
to help someone in physical danger, whether it’s on a mountain
or not. These innate strengths and learned skills can be used to
show how the character approaches any number of situations.
All of these skills and reactions might be in the text.
There still might be subtext in the attitudes the person has
toward these abilities. It might be that the person seems overly
confident and talks big, but underneath he is unsure about
any chance of competing and this anxiety shows in the way
he tries to hide his nervousness. Or maybe the person is very
talented, but is afraid people won’t like her if she wins, so
she sabotages her performance and makes dozens of mistakes.
Sometimes people lie about their abilities, either to get out of
responsibility, or because they lack confidence.
Sometimes subtext comes through in films about people with
special psychic abilities. At times, they try to deny their gift,
until it pushes at them and they have no choice but to listen and
accept it. In the television series Medium, the main character,
Allison DuBois, has visions and dreams of dead people. But
having this gift isn’t always easy, and through the series, she has
to learn to come to grips with and even control her abilities. As
a result, she uses her power to solve crimes.
writing subtext | seger

40 In the Spiderman series, Peter Parker has to come to terms with
his abilities. In Spiderman 2, he has an identity crisis and comes
to the conclusion that he doesn’t want to be Spiderman. He
throws away his suit and chooses to be normal. This choice is
in the text. It’s a clear action and by the time it occurs, we un-
derstand it. But we understand it because the subtext rumblings
have prepared us. We know he’s torn between being Spiderman
and his love for Mary Jane. We see him at times take off his
mask as if he’s considering taking off the entire costume. There
are other subtextual resonances before he throws out his suit.
Mary Jane is in the play The Importance of Being Earnest (1910, by
Oscar Wilde). The first time she appears, he misses the per-
formance – which suggests that he is missing the importance
of being honest and “being earnest.” But he goes to the second
performance, after he’s decided to be normal. He later decides
to accept that “with great power comes great responsibility,”
reclaiming his suit and his identity.
A similar story is found in Superman 2, when Superman wants
to be normal because of his love for Lois Lane. He gives up his
powers, only to take them back when he realizes the world is in
grave danger. In Superman 2, more of this information is in the
text than in the subtext.
The Character’s Educational Background: If a person’s edu-
cational background is important, it will usually be in the text.
The M.D. will be addressed as “Dr. Smith” or Indiana Jones,
with his PhD, will be addressed as “Dr. Jones.” Another per-
son’s education might be addressed because they mention their
alma mater (“I’m a Harvard man”), or they mention where they
studied, “I studied at the High School of Performing Arts in
New York – I act!” or because they might simply be performing
the actions that show their education – walking down the hospi-
tal hall wearing a nurse’s uniform; filling prescriptions behind
the pharmacy counter; teaching in a high school or college; or
wearing a badge, which tells us he is a detective with the NYPD.
expressing subtext through words: character information and backstory

There’s no subtext with this basic information. It simply tells 41
us through visuals, or with a line or two, something about the
person’s educational level.
But subtext comes with attitude. What does the person think
about his or her education? How does the person feel about his
or her educational level? Some who have had little schooling
might be ashamed or they might be proud. They might say, “I
don’t have no book learning, but look what I made of myself!
I’m really somethin’!”
Or, they might not be willing to admit their lack of education,
but it shows in their vocabulary and grammar and attitudes and
sometimes through their lack of knowledge of basics that most
people learn in high school or college. If the neighbor guy
says to you, “Who’s Shakespeare? He that guy moved in next
door?” we immediately know a whole range of information.
If a teacher tells this neighbor about William Shakespeare, she
might be showing her attitude about a lack of learning or her
enthusiasm for Shakespeare.
Subtext might come into the conversation if we wonder why
the teacher is talking about Shakespeare with the neighbor any-
way. Is this conversation meant to embarrass the neighbor? Or
show how erudite and therefore better the teacher is? Or is the
neighbor fascinated with new information, and welcomes it?
I know some PhDs who are a bit embarrassed by their degree
and don’t tell anyone about it, and others who insist everyone
use it, even close friends. There are some people who don’t
like to call someone “doctor,” perhaps out of a lack of respect
for education, and others who use it all the time. I once knew
a woman from my home town who was the wife of a doctor.
When referring to her husband, she never called him by his
first name, but always by the title of “Dr.” Of course, for some
women, marrying a doctor was a big coup. This reference told
me volumes about how she sensed her role as a wife and her
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42 pride in being married to the only doctor in town. (It was a
small town!)
I had a short-lived relationship with a guy who was so proud of
my doctorate, he made sure I met his parents on our first (and
only) date so he could introduce me as “Dr. Seger.” Too much
subtext going on there!
Educational level can be suggested in other ways. We know a
character did well in school or at least is very smart when she uses
vocabulary or grammar that suggests a high degree of education.
We know the character has read a fair amount of Shakespeare if
he refers to someone by saying she’s “just like the dark lady of
the Sonnets” – although he might leave the audience behind
with that remark.
Sometimes a character’s attitude toward education can be
expressed through the words on the T-shirt he or she is wear-
ing. Are they crass? (“Screw you, bud!”); or purposefully
un-educated? (“I ain’t got no education – on purpose!”); or
purposefully obscure (“I’m Jude the Obscure – deal with it!”);
or, perhaps implying their subject matter – mathematical
formulas, musical notes, or a line from Tennessee Williams.
Characters have often had bad experiences with school. Perhaps
they say: “Just like school! Not my idea of fun!” or “Don’t send
me back to that prison!”
Conflict can come about by the contrast between the parents’
attitude toward education and the children’s attitude. The first
child in a family to go to college may be treated better (or worse)
by the parents. The child who became a doctor might be treated
like a king, while the other siblings and the working class
relatives are ignored.

How much money do they have?
The educational level may relate to the economic class of the
character. Although statistically those with education make
expressing subtext through words: character information and backstory

more money than those without, plenty of stories exist in which 43
the person with very little education becomes a millionaire.
The amount of money may be in the text, but the character’s
attitude toward the money may be in the subtext.
There are stories of children who grew up believing they were
poor, only to discover their family had a great deal of money
stashed away, but were ashamed of it or afraid of losing it all so
they kept it a secret or gave it away or squandered it.
I had the opposite experience. I grew up believing we had
enough – not rich, but definitely not poor. When I was in my
40s, my mother told me we had been poor when I was growing
up, but she didn’t want us to know because she didn’t want us to
get a complex about it. She grew up in a family that always talked
about being poor and always talked about money, so she decid-
ed she wouldn’t raise her children that way. I was amazed, even
shocked by this information; it shifted my perspective of my
childhood. At first, I couldn’t understand how it could be true
because I didn’t remember ever feeling poor, nor did I ever
perceive our family as poor. I grew up with a beautiful Steinway
Concert Grand Piano in our living room (my mother was a
piano teacher), and I knew poor people didn’t have pianos
– certainly not ones like that. My mother retold a long story
of how we happened to get that piano, clarifying that it didn’t
prove we were rich. She reminded me of the Thanksgiving when
we ate hot dogs instead of turkey. My sister and I thought that
was great. She explained that she served hot dogs because there
was nothing else in the refrigerator and she and my dad had no
money left. Everything had been represented to us so we didn’t
think we were poor. At times there was more money, so being
poor was not the case for all of my childhood, but her revelation
showed me how something can be interpreted one way, but not
be the whole story.
writing subtext | seger

44 What’s the religion, or lack of it?

By the time most people reach adulthood, they have some reli-
gious background and some religious attitudes. They might have
grown up attending a church, synagogue, mosque, ashram, or
some spiritual community – or not. They might have left it, or
become more committed and involved as they got older. If they
left, they might have left amiably, or they might still carry the
resentment of what happened to them in synagogue or how they
responded when the kid in Sunday school said they were going
to hell, or how they became increasingly uncomfortable as their
spiritual community radicalized.
In many cases, you won’t need to mention this aspect. But these
religious attitudes also inform a person’s attitude toward oth-
ers, and show up in the ways they speak and behave. They might
make snide remarks about religious people, or about people of
specific religions. Someone who’s uncomfortable being alone
might be highly uncomfortable around the mystic who medi-
tates three hours a day. Someone might become religiously
and socially radicalized and start attending peace protests, or
perhaps a Tea Party protest, or a pro-choice or pro-life march.
This behavior might make a parent, spouse, or friend wonder
what has caused that nice, socially appropriate person to sud-
denly respond in this way.
Attitude, or information about someone’s religious context,
can come out in a small piece of dialogue here or there, if it’s
appropriate.
In Raider’s of the Lost Ark (1981), two lines tell us a great deal about
Indiana Jones and his attitude toward religion.
Indiana tells the government agents about the city of Tanis and
about the Lost Ark that is supposed to lie there. When he sees
their bewildered faces, he says:
INDIANA JONES
Didn’t you guys ever go to Sunday school?
expressing subtext through words: character information and backstory

Right away, we know Jones has a Protestant background since 45
Catholics go to Catechism, devout Jews study the Torah and go
to shul, and Protestants go to Sunday School.
This information may not seem relevant, except the whole film
is based on the Bible’s story of the Lost Ark and the few refer-
ences to Tanis made in the Bible. Although from this reference,
we don’t know what Jones believes now, later he implies he’s an
agnostic or atheist. When Jones shows the government men a
picture of what the Ark might look like, one of the government
men asks him about the light coming out of the Ark and Jones
replies:
INDIANA JONES
... the power of God... if you believe in that sort of thing.

In that line, Jones implies his attitude and his current belief
system. He also reveals a cynicism that sets up where he stands at
the beginning of the film and transforms as the film proceeds.
In The Great Santini, Toomer, the young black man who stutters,
tells us a world about what his life is like with a simple line. Ben
and Toomer are watching the stars and Ben points out a shoot-
ing star. Ben mentions it’s a shooting star, but Toomer has a
more religious interpretation:
TOOMER
That’s the tear of infant Jesus falling on
account of such a sinful and hateful world.

Toomer has plenty to deal with. Although he’s a man of faith,
he knows the oppression and the nastiness that’s out there.

Subtext suggests our true desires, wants, and goals
Often we’re afraid to talk about what truly interests us, or what
our true desires are. This reluctance might be because others
won’t agree with us or think we’re not good enough to achieve
them, or maybe because it’s not appropriate to talk about in
writing subtext | seger

46 polite company, or because we’ll never achieve the object of our
desires – according to parents or close friends. So we hide what
we truly want and say what we think others want to hear. In Dead
Poets Society (1989), Neil really wants to write and act, but his fa-
ther makes it clear he’s not to do extracurricular activities. He’s
to focus on grades. When the other boys start to sympathize with
him, Neil replies “I don’t care.” But clearly he does.
In the A & E Production of Pride and Prejudice, (1996, by Seth
Grahame-Smith from the book by Jane Austen), Charlotte has
recently married Mr. Collins, the rector, a man who had been
interested in Lizzie but she decidedly was not interested in him.
He is a bit of a silly man, full of himself, clearly more than
a bit of a bore with his bragging and name-dropping, while
pretending to be a man of importance. Charlotte understands
her husband. She is also clear about what she really wanted all
along – a husband, a home in the country, and stability. Al-
though Lizzie might need to marry for love (which is implied
throughout the film, as well as in this scene), Charlotte doesn’t
have the same need.
When Lizzie visits Charlotte after her marriage, Charlotte looks
out the window at her husband and begins the scene:
CHARLOTTE
Mr. Collins tends the gardens himself and spends
a good part of every day in them.

Already, we might be picking up on subtext. If he’s spending a
good part of every day in his garden, he is probably not spend-
ing a good part of the day with Charlotte. We might wonder,
“How does Charlotte feel about that?”
LIZZIE
The exercise must be very beneficial.

If you watch the film, Lizzie seems to be already picking up on
the subtext from Charlotte. Her response is deliberately neutral
expressing subtext through words: character information and backstory

in order to elicit more from Charlotte, if Charlotte so chooses 47
to tell her more.
CHARLOTTE
Oh yes. I encourage him to be in his gardens as much as
possible. And then he has to walk to Rosings
nearly every day.

Oh! So, Charlotte encourages him. Now we understand her
husband spends a great deal of time in the garden and takes
long walks to town. We’re beginning to get the idea of their
marriage.
LIZZIE
So often. Is that necessary?

Hmmm, what is going on in this marriage?
CHARLOTTE
Perhaps not, but I confess I encourage that as well.

Oh, Charlotte encourages all of this. We’re beginning to see the
picture here.
LIZZIE
Walking is very beneficial exercise.

Lizzie likes to walk, and she might wonder if this is all about
a love for walking, although Lizzie is not known to be dense
and seems already to understand what’s going on. Again, she
remains fairly neutral. It wouldn’t be polite to ask Charlotte
outright if she likes to be alone, loves the little house, and rec-
ognizes that her husband is not good company.
CHARLOTTE
Indeed it is. And when he is in the house, he’s mostly in
his bookroom which affords a good view of the
road whenever Lady Catherine’s carriage should
drive by.

Oh, he’s in his own place, and… where is she?
writing subtext | seger

48 LIZZIE
And you prefer to sit in this parlor?

CHARLOTTE
Yes, so it often happens that a whole day passes in
which we have not spent more than a few moments
in each other’s company.

And it’s so blissful on those days! Very nice, indeed.
LIZZIE
I see.

Yes, Lizzie now sees the subtext very clearly. So do we!
CHARLOTTE
I find that I can bear the solitude very cheerfully.
Often I find myself quite content with my situation.

And now she tells us, fairly specifically, this setup is just how
she wants it. But she’s still putting a bit of subtext in the scene
by using the word “bear.” It’s not perfect, but she can usually
be content.
If you watch the scene, you’ll notice how the characters use
glances at each other and at Mr. Collins outside the window to
communicate subtext. In this case, Charlotte is conscious about
the subtext and willing to share it with Lizzie, but it wouldn’t be
appropriate for the characters during that historical period to
state outright all of these meanings. Nor would it be such a bril-
liant scene if it were just about the text.

Expressing Subtext through The Shadow

If we’re really honest with ourselves, we probably admit we have
some kind of psychological problem – uncertainties, insecuri-
ties, a few irrational fears here or there, something we’re obsessed
with, a bit too negative about some things. Like us, characters do
not have it all together, and their flaws drive them and give them
dimension.
expressing subtext through words: character information and backstory

Sometimes the psychology in a character or a family is expressed 49
emotionally. Their feelings of disappointment or discourage-
ment, regret or anger at how things are drive them to emotional
outbursts, where suddenly they react way out of proportion to
what is going on.
Almost all the characters in the film American Beauty (1999, by
Alan Ball) are driven by emotional subtext. Lester is going
through his midlife crisis and suddenly realizes things could be
different. He quits his job, blackmails his boss, and puts down
new rules in the household – including changing the dinner
music. His wife, Carolyn, holds to her upper middle class life-
style. She has her own set of secrets – she’s having an affair. The
neighbors have secrets. The mother is abused by the husband,
and takes it silently, not expressing herself. The military father
is a closet homosexual.
These psychological problems, flaws, and imperfections often
exist in what psychologists call “the shadow,” that part of us we
want to deny, which is the opposite of what we portray to the
world. The idea of the shadow can be seen very clearly in the
classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, from the novel by Robert Louis
Stevenson. The story shows the two sides of a character – the
good and the evil. The kindly Dr. Jekyll experiments with his
shadow side, transforming himself through potion into the evil
Mr. Hyde.
The book and film The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) puts the
shadow side of Dorian into a painting that changes as Dorian
becomes more dissolute and evil. He, however, remains youth-
ful and sweet-looking, in spite of the evil in his soul.
We can see the shadow pop out in such films as L.A. Confidential
(1997) and Witness, when the chief of police who seems to be
pursuing the bad guy is really one of them.
writing subtext | seger

50 For the seemingly confident sports figure, the shadow might
be the looming insecurities that threaten the upcoming
competition.
For the political figure who tries to project family values, it’s
the affair he’s having on the sly (we’ve seen more than a few of
those!)
For the seemingly honest corporate man, it’s the dishonesty he
tries to hide – stealing from the supply cabinet, fudging over-
time hours, cheating on taxes.
For the law-and-order cop who says he abides by all the rules,
it’s the corruption on the side.
Most characters try to keep their shadows hidden, but they
emerge at some time or another. We are usually surprised
because the shadow starkly contrasts to the side of us, or the side
of another, that we usually see.
There are characters with hidden secrets that fall within the
scope of psychologically normal, and then there are, of course,
other characters who are just plain wacko, but won’t admit it.
The shadow keeps popping out in words and actions, revealing
the true character beneath.
In Psycho (1960, written by Joseph Stefano), Norman Bates is
truly psycho. He clearly has a whole slew of unresolved feelings
about his mother. He explains to Mary Crane.
NORMAN
When you love someone, you don’t do
that to them even if you hate them.
Oh, I don’t hate her. I hate...
what she’s become. I hate the illness

Hate? Love? How does Norman really feel? Both – in spite of
denying his true feelings.
Although the shadow is usually thought of as the negative side,
it can be any contrast to the side we show to the world – negative
expressing subtext through words: character information and backstory

or positive. It is simply the unexpressed, buried, unknown, and 51
hidden side of us. In film the shadow is usually negative because
having it so provides more opportunity for conflict, emotion,
and flaws in the character. But, it can also be positive. Under
certain circumstances, an insecure person might suddenly find a
new level of confidence. The dishonest person might be honest
about certain things and surprise us (and maybe even herself.)
In Up in the Air, Ryan seems content to be solitary, traveling all
the time, uncommitted; but his shadow wants to be connect-
ed. He’s greatly disappointed to find out that his mistress has
a family. His disappointment seems to come not just from her
betrayal, but also from his interest in her, which seems to be far
more than just a one or two-night stand. He makes the com-
mitment to go to his niece’s wedding, talks to her fiancé when
he gets cold feet, and even volunteers to walk her down the aisle
– showing he wants to take a more active part in his family. His
shadow is quite different than the persona of one who wants to
sustain very few commitments.
In Up (2009) the protagonist is bitter and living in the past.
A young kid in need of a father accidentally comes along. The
companionship forces the man’s growth and acceptance of his
shadow side. We can see that the shadow was positive – he was
a loving husband – a side of himself he has covered up since
his wife died. We can see the bitterness, underneath which is
a tremendous sense of loss and disappointment in himself for
letting his wife down by not pursuing their dreams of adven-
ture. As the story proceeds, we see he has a genuine desire to
feel love. By the end, he reconciles with his shadow side and is
willing to express his kinder self.

Subtext shows denial, attitudes, and cover-ups:
Sometimes people are dismissive or evasive because they don’t
want to confront what’s really going on. They try to get out of
facing issues, or being honest when it doesn’t benefit them.
writing subtext | seger

52 In Revolutionary Road (2008, by Justin Haythe), after Jack Wheel-
er has gotten the secretary quite drunk and slept with her, he
gets dressed, ready to go back to his wife. Clearly the secretary
is waiting for some words of encouragement, compliments,
or commitment. Instead, he tells her “Listen, you were swell”
and kisses her on the cheek. We might think: “What was that all
about? ‘Swell!?’ You’ve got to be kidding!” It’s not exactly what
a woman wants to hear. Yet, we know what it’s all about. Jack
does not want to make any commitment to her, but wants to
be nice about it. He wants to leave the fling open-ended, but
doesn’t want to give her any reason to think it’s more than a
little afternoon delight before going home to his conventional
1950s home.
When Jack and April announce they’re moving to Paris, neigh-
bors and friends see the idea as rather juvenile, an attitude that
is implied through words suggestive of immaturity. Millie, the
next-door neighbor, says, “Sounds wonderful, kids!” but the
word “kids” implies her opinion of this idea. Throughout the
film, the plan is called “immature,” “whimsical,” “fantasy,” “a
childish idea,” and “unrealistic.” When Frank cancels the trip,
and April becomes increasingly frenetic and frantic about her
dreams dying, even Frank implies the childishness of the dream
and suggests that she see a “shrink.” He doesn’t use the word
“psychologist,” “therapist,” or “psychiatrist,” or say “you have
to get help,” but uses the word, “shrink.” “Shrink” has many
associations. It’s a negative word, usually implying the person
needing to see a shrink is a bit crazy. “Shrink” also suggests what
is going on – April’s dreams must be “shrunk” (to the point of
disappearing), and the shrink is supposed serve that effort by
helping her see that her dreams are too big, too unrealistic, too
extravagant, too grandiose.
Whereas “shrink” denotes making something smaller, the
word “Army,” as used by Uncle Charlie in Shadow of Doubt
(1943), denotes a larger force. He tells his sister, Emma:
expressing subtext through words: character information and backstory

UNCLE CHARLIE 53
Children should be brought up to know what
The world is really like. They should be
prepared... like an army...

And through his word choice, we might think: “Obviously,
Charlie thinks of the world as the enemy, an enemy that must
be defeated.”
The writer carefully chooses the right word to add depth and
resonance to the character and to the story. Army” implies
conquering, aggression, defeating, getting the upper hand, or
overcoming. “Army” has a violent resonance, just like “mur-
der.” Armies also kill, just like Uncle Charlie.
A world of information about the character can be revealed
through words that imply and suggest backstory and attitude.
Every word is carefully chosen. No word is vague. No word is
arbitrary.
writing subtext | seger

54 Exercises and Questions for Discussion
(1) Think of films you love. What do you know about the char-
acter’s backstory? How do you know it? How much is in the
text? How much in the subtext?
(2) Canyou think of films with religious characters? How are
their religious attitudes implied? What do you know about
their religion just from a character saying “I’m Catholic,”
or “I’m Baptist,” or “I’m Muslim”? Does the character have
an attitude toward his or her religious beliefs and actions?
(3) Watch a film of your choosing and write out the resume of
the character based upon what you have learned about the
character in the film. How much of this information did
you get from the text? How much from the subtext?
(4) Makea list or google to get information about films that
show people with special abilities or disabilities, whether
physical or psychic or mental. Watch several. Contrast the
different attitudes characters have toward their abilities.
Then, think about the psychology in your own script. If
you’re working with a mental disease, does the character try
to hide it? If so, how is this hiding done? Through denial?
By keeping a tight lid on talk and emotions?

You might decide to talk to a psychiatrist or read books
on the subject and ask how the disease manifests, how the
person usually tries to hide it, and how it reveals itself.
(5) Doany of your characters have a secret, something they
keep hidden? Is it something they feel guilty about?
Ashamed of? Is it illegal? Immoral? Inappropriate? If
so, how does it pop out — when the character is alone, or
with others?